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Competition: Bespoke Access Awards for accessible hotel design

The Royal Institute of British Architects has launched a £30,000 international contest seeking ideas to revolutionise the quality of hotel experiences for disabled people (Deadline: 1 September)

The anonymous competition, backed by Bespoke Hotels, seeks ‘imaginative, innovative and potentially realisable’ proposals to improve access for disabled people – including those with learning difficulties – in hotels worldwide.

Concepts which challenge existing ‘joyless, poorly designed and over-medicalised’ preconceptions of disability-friendly hotel facilities are furthermore required.

Bespoke Access Awards

The overall winner will receive the £20,000 Celia Thomas Prize – named after UK peer and disability rights campaigner Celia Thomas, who has limb girdle muscular dystrophy.

According to the brief: ‘The scope of the competition is wide-ranging. It seeks to reward the most creative and original ideas in architecture, interior design, product design and service design.

‘Ideas could address the experience from the front door to any room or service within a hotel, and the process that has to be undertaken before a visitor arrives or at check out.’

The brief continued: ‘The competition is not about improving current regulations, rules or standards that may apply in any particular country although these may change over time as new ideas are adopted.’

High-profile judges include British athlete Tanni Grey-Thompson who was born with spina bifida and has won 16 Paralympic medals.

Commenting on the awards, she said: ‘I have travelled the world, I have had experience of how poor design standards in some hotels can affect how you feel – not only about staying but also about the whole experience.

‘The industry needs to do better but it can never just be about technical standards. Great architecture is about spaces that make you feel better and which make you want to return.’

Bespoke Hotels chair Robin Sheppard – who previously suffered from Guillain Barre syndrome – and wheelchair user Alan Stanton of 2012 RIBA Stirling Prize-winners Stanton Williams are also on the judging panel.

Bespoke Access Awards

The competition is open to all entrants, and applications from designers and architects with disabilities are strongly encouraged by the organisers.

Schemes may focus on any real or imagined hotel project in any context. Submissions may include sketches, graphics, drawings, illustrations, photographs, sections, plans or elevations.

Participants will be expected to demonstrate engagement with service users – including disabled people – in drawing up their proposals.

Entries will also be judged on their creativity and originality, scope for future adoption and clarity of communication.

The winners will be announced on 1 December at an event in the Palace of Westminster in London. An additional £10,000 worth of awards will also be given out along with the £20,000 Celia Thomas Prize.

How to apply


2pm local time 1 September

Contact details

RIBA Competitions

1 Aire Street

Leeds LS1 4PR

United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)113 203 1490


Visit the competition website for more information

Handicap Organisations House case study: Q&A with Andreas Lauesen

The founding partner of Force4 Architects discusses lessons learned designing an accessible office block in Denmark



Handicap Organisations House by Force4 Architects

How did you design for a high-quality accessible experience in your competition-winning Handicap Organisations House project?

We started with a lot of research into other projects for disabled people. The client gave all the teams in the competition an education about life with disabilities. They took us out into the field in wheelchairs and blindfolds, and asked us to move around the city and experience how it was to be disabled. So we were prepared before we started to work on our designs.

It’s super important to have a lot of knowledge about disabilities before you start sketching, as this way you can make the right choices from the very start. For example, we had an idea for a round atrium and in our team we had a blind woman as an advisor. She said if you walk around the atrium with a stick or handrail then there is no way for users to orientate themselves, whereas with a square there are angles and edges which help blind people know where they are.

The starting concept is therefore super important and if it is strong enough you can accommodate for all disabilities from the outset. If it’s not, then you will have to keep fixing the design. Orientation and clarity within the building are key. If it’s a bigger public building, wayfinding and clarity is key, especially for people with learning difficulties or blind people. If you can integrate it in a natural way at concept level, that is a big advantage for people with disabilities.



Handicap Organisations House by Force4 Architects

Why are disabled-friendly hotel rooms so often seen as joyless, poorly-designed and over-medicalised’?

If you make one hotel room that fits all disabilities, then you have cranes to lift wheelchair users from wheelchair to toilet, and so if you are blind, you come into the room and think: they haven’t designed this for me. It’s about knowing your audience so you don’t make one room for everybody, but different rooms for different needs.

You need to break it down into what each room can do for each type of disability, both physical and mental. You also need to find which requirements you design for together and which you need to split up. A blind person could easily stay in an everyday hotel room, but you could do something to the building and hotel room which helps them find their way to the room on their own. For example, instead of using vision they could use other senses to find their way intuitively around the building. You can feel and hear your way, and you can also touch and make more sensual rooms and spaces.

Thinking about disabilities gives an extra layer of experience for all of us. This layer provides intuitive accessibility and sensuality. Good case studies are works by Alvar Aalto and Peter Zumthor. Their sensual projects which put information into the senses of the materials provide brilliant examples.



Handicap Organisations House by Force4 Architects

Q&A with competition judge Alan Stanton of Stanton Williams

Bespoke Access Awards judge

Why are accessible hotel rooms so often unsatisfactory?

Hotel rooms can often be uninspiring, cramped and cluttered with very little thought for how people use them. They should be a beautiful kind of ‘space capsule’ – a home for a night – which (just like at home) should have everything you need. And just as important, they should be spaces that make you feel good – pleasurable and uplifting as well as comfortable, with plenty of daylight and views out.

This is all just as true for people with disabilities. Of course there are some special needs – grab rails, a shower seat etc. Most importantly it’s the design of the space, its arrangement with sufficient generosity to move easily around it.

What are the key challenges for designers in creating the ideal accessible hotel experience?

Firstly, this is not just about designing for people with disabilities. I am often surprised how fully able people will often prefer the spaciousness of a disabled toilet and the generosity of accessible spaces and facilities. The campaigning architect Selwyn Goldsmith said that inclusive ‘universal design’ should come from the bottom up, meaning what is good for the disabled can push up overall quality standards. After all, we are all ‘disabled’ at some point in our lives and well designed, inclusive projects can be better for everyone.

So what are the challenges? The devil is of course in the detail. Everyone, disabled or not, is different and every detail needs to be carefully thought through and ’live tested’. Design has to be empathetic with a real understanding of how people act and feel.

And then there is the question of image. Much disabled design tends to be ‘medicalised’, often bland and clunky. Here is a great opportunity. Just as wheelchair design has been revolutionised (mostly by aerospace designers in America) and is now virtually elevated to being stylish sports equipment, so inclusive design can be fun, joyful and uplifting. Why not beautiful materials, expressive details and elegant forms?

This design competition also includes ‘service design’. This is critical. How many accessible toilets have I come across blocked up with storage, how many hotel bedrooms and bathrooms where furniture has been ‘rearranged’ so that you can’t reach anything? So this is really about raising consciousness and changing the service culture. How to communicate this? I’m a great believer in ‘live testing’ – a day spent in a wheelchair can radically change someone’s view of the world.

Who are you hoping will participate in the awards?

The awards are open to everyone. The organisers are encouraging individual entries, collaborations between designers and people with disabilities as well as cross-disciplinary collaborations. Personally, I hope that we will see lots of young, upcoming designers and architects going for this one.

Which recent accessible projects have impressed you most?

It is difficult to select a particular ‘accessible’ project. It does seem to be consistent in projects that I have visited, that the care, intelligence and creativity manifested in outstanding architecture and design often naturally includes high standards of accessible thinking.